The storylines diverge into two fascinating tracks involving the Chinese and Western students. First, Peng and Zhu's life stories are heartbreakingly reminiscent of Steve James' Hoop Dreams, where the love of sport and the yearning to emerge from poverty are combined to create a complex, fervid motivation to succeed and agony when obstacles are thrown in the way. Zhu struggles with repeated injuries which his rigorous training schedule will not allow time to heal while Peng must constantly battle his loneliness from being abandoned by his parents and feeling isolated from the other children in his school. Peng speaks so matter-of-factly about his sadness and displays such tranquility that you don't know whether to cry, be inspired, or hug your television screen.
The Western students have vastly different concerns. Orion feels the pressure of being a relative newbie and is painfully aware of the leg up his Chinese classmates have on him in terms of skill and flexibility. His status as a foreigner is also made clear to him on a daily basis. Meanwhile, Eric and his Senegalese buddy Hussein bicker about the pay-off of spending years under a master who will not teach his secrets to non-Chinese. There are these moments when Western privilege and entitlement tend to rear their heads, but Lee smartly avoids demonizing Westerners or sanctifying Chinese in his film.
There are some cheeky moments ‚Äî such as Eric hitting on some Chinese Wushu performers and students cheering "Foreigner!" during Orion's forms exam ‚Äî but the focus never strays from each student's kung fu dreams and the personal barriers that each one must face. The physical toll of training, the unrelenting instruction from teachers, and the desolate surroundings of the kung fu schools are juxtaposed with screen images of the classic kung fu films (such as Shaolin Temple starring a young Jet Li) and reveals the disparity between what it actually takes, and means, to master kung fu and what we see on the silver screen.
The Real Shaolin is now available on DVD through the official website.